PEKAN, Pahang: It was ten hours before Malaysians start electing their next government. On local television, the nation watched as its most powerful man delivered his final move on the political chessboard.
His attacker, positioned on an island a great distance away, is an old grandmaster who has fought and won many tough battles.
It is the final showdown of the two players before the judges – about 14.5 million eligible voters – declare the winner of Malaysia’s 14th general election.
“Barisan Nasional is a party that looks forward - a party of the future and for the future. We are not a party of the past and we don't play around with leaders who have retired," caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak told a cheering crowd of supporters on Tuesday (May 8) at his residence Sri Kenangan in Pekan, Pahang state, where he is contesting a parliamentary seat.
Defending his third term of premiership, the 64-year-old foreman of the ruling alliance Barisan Nasional (BN) referred to the opposition maestro and oldest contestant in the election game, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who also delivered a speech at his final rally on the island of Langkawi, where he will contest a parliamentary seat on May 9.
Come Wednesday, the nonagenarian could become the oldest prime minister in the world if he manages to crush Najib – his former protege.
The stakes are high. Whoever wins gets to lead Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy for the next five years, distribute and utilise its rich resources and determine the future of some 30 million residents and taxpayers.
So, to clinch victory, Najib is giving it his all.
“To all young people aged 26 years and below, we will give an income tax exemption from the year of assessment 2017 and subsequent years with immediate effect," he declared, adding those who had already paid taxes last year would be reimbursed.
Claps and cheers erupted among the excited crowd.
Kepada semua golongan muda belia negara yang berumur 26 tahun dan ke bawah, kita akan berikan pengecualian cukai pendapatan, bermula dari tahun taksiran 2017 dan tahun-tahun berikutnya dengan serta merta.— Mohd Najib Tun Razak (@NajibRazak) May 8, 2018
Najib also promised to make May 14-15 public holidays so that Malaysians can spend time with their family and prepare for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
His announcement came less than a month after Mahathir pledged to introduce two additional holidays on May 10 and 11 if his opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan won the Wednesday polls.
Najib also said that all highways would be toll-free for five days in June during the Hari Raya period if BN won the election.
During his 30-minute speech, Najib appealed to Malaysians’ empathy, claiming he has been “accused, scorned and insulted” in the election battle mined with “too many personal attacks”.
“Although I’m a leader and prime minister, I too am an ordinary human being. I have a heart and feelings,” he said.
“I think this is all a test of God. When I see the people, there are tears in my eyes and a hand in my hand saying: 'Continue the struggle'. Then the wound in the liver and the scar of the soul disappear. So I’d like to appeal to voters: Vote for Barisan Nasional – the party that has always delivered its promises.”
For the 11 days since he was nominated for the competition, the BN commander has travelled the country in his private jet to deter attacks, secure support and make new allies.
His campaign to defend leadership started in his constituency Pekan in Pahang state. It then crossed the South China Sea to the semi-autonomous Sabah, where opposition newcomer Parti Warisan Sabah has emerged as an underdog against BN’s perennial state rule.
Najib’s journey took him to key contesting grounds largely populated with ethnic Malays in Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Kepala Batas, Tasek Gelugor and Paloh Hinai.
Making up the largest demographic in Malaysia of 70 per cent, Malay voters play a crucial role in BN’s political future.
Its core member, Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has mostly secured the Malay majority vote for more than six decades. However, 22 years of its political dominance came under the rule of prominent defector Mahathir.
Therefore, in the lead-up to the May 9 election, much speculation has surrounded a potential ‘Malay tsunami’. The term is used by locals to describe a phenomenon where Malay votes swing against the ruling coalition and sweep away its parliamentary majority.
To maintain BN’s power, Najib has had to keep Malaysians appeased.
Besides highlighting BN’s past achievements, which range from the BR1M subsidy for seven million low-income earners to multi-billion-dollar mega-projects and salary increments for civil servants, the 64-year-old “Bugis warrior” – as he calls himself – also paved the campaign trail with promises of better lives and brighter future.
Between Apr 28 and May 8, his election promises have exceeded US$159 million in value.
They come in the form of development programmes, special grants and funds that span various federal constituencies. They do not include pledges by other BN candidates or those indicated in the alliance’s election manifesto, which are worth tens of billions of dollars.
Before ending his speech, Najib recounted his impression of the election campaign and gave his one final promise of the night.
"I can feel what the people desire. I appreciate every moment and every face I've seen, every hand I've shaken – hands that held me tight. I will always remember that," he addressed the crowd.
“We will ensure tomorrow will be better than today.”
Yet, whether his promise is real enough to defeat the opposition and its grandmaster remains a mystery, although not for long.